Sunday, March 11, 2012

THE WEST MEMPHIS THREE


Damien Echols describes seeing his first sunset in almost twenty years.

Am I the only person on earth who had not, until last week, heard of the West Memphis Three? This buffoonish travesty of justice might have been comical if it had not resulted in the sentencing of two 18-year-olds to life, and a 19-year-old to Death Row, where he stayed in solitary confinement for 18 1/2 years in an Arkansas SuperMaxt.

From wikipedia:


"The West Memphis Three are three men who were tried and convicted as teenagers in 1994 of the 1993 murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Damien Echols was sentenced to death, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. was sentenced to life imprisonment plus two 20-year sentences, and Jason Baldwin was sentenced to life imprisonment. During the trial, the prosecution asserted that the children were killed as part of a satanic ritual. A number of documentaries have been based on the case, and celebrities and musicians have held fund raisers in the belief that they are innocent.

In July 2007, new forensic evidence was presented in the case and a status report jointly issued by the State and the Defense team stated, "Although most of the genetic material recovered from the scene was attributable to the victims of the offenses, some of it cannot be attributed to either the victims or the defendants." On October 29, 2007, the defense filed a Second Amended Writ of Habeas Corpus, outlining the new evidence.

Following a successful decision in 2010 by the Arkansas Supreme Court regarding newly produced DNA evidence, the West Memphis Three reached a deal with prosecutors. On August 19, 2011, they entered Alford pleas, which allow them to assert their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them. Judge David Laser accepted the pleas and sentenced the three to time served. They were released with ten-year suspended sentences, having served 18 years and 78 days in prison."
HBO made a three-part documentary on the case called Paradise Lost (only Parts 1 (The Childhood Murders at Robin Hood Hills: 1996) and 2 (Revelations: 2000) are out on netflix. Here's the trailer for Part 3 (Purgatory: 2011):



Touching side note: NYC landscape architect Lorri Davis saw Paradise Lost in early 1996, was appalled/inspired/intrigued, and wrote Damien Echols in jail. The two fell in love and were married on December 3, 1999, while he was still on Death Row. She fought tirelessly for his release. This NYTimes story documents their romance. Along with Peter Jackson (also a tireless promoter of the movement to free the WM3), Echols and Davis produced the recent documentary, West of Memphis, which was directed by Amy Berg, premiered this year at Sundance, and has been picked up by Sony Pictures Classics.

Even as a 19-year-old with a botched Boy George haircut, Echols (who was convicted largely on the basis of the fact that he listened to Metallica, wore black, and once doodled the name Aleister Crowley, along with others, on a notepad) far outshone anyone involved in the case (with the possible exception of his co-defendants), exhibiting way more courage, duende and class than the investigating officers, D.A., and definitely the judge. One of the most remarkable aspects of the case is that the boys became men in jail (Jason Baldwin recounts that he was arrested on his last day of tenth grade: his mother brought his report card to jail and showed it to him through the bars) and by men, I mean real men, who understand what happened to them, are continuing to fight to exonerate themselves, and have seemingly no bitterness, no hatred, no trash talk. They're grateful and, considering what they endured, they're grounded almost beyond imagination. People from around the world fought for their cause and it's easy to see why.


JESSIE MISSKELLEY, THEN AND NOW


JASON BALDWIN, THEN AND NOW
Watching Paradise Lost, I was struck by the fact that Jessy Misskelly seemed to be motherless, and Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols seemed to be fatherless.

"We were the bottom of the barrel," says Echols. "Poor white trash."  It's hard to know who to feel worse for: the parents of the 8-year-olds--Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers--who were brutally murdered; or the parents of the innocent boys--truly, they were boys themselves--who saw their sons convicted, exiled, shunned by the community without a single piece of physical evidence linking them to the crime scene. To have no money for a decent defense. To no doubt be shunned themselves.

In one scene, shortly after the three have been arrested,  Misskelly's father is talking to his then girlfriend. She says, "If Jessie done what they said he done, I ain't havin nothin more to do with im. I wouldn't send him a nickel." The father says stubbornly,  "I would." "I wouldn't even send him a pack of cigarettes," the girlfriend continues. "I would," says the father. "Nope," the girlfriend presses on, "nor even a pack of cigarettes." "I will send him a pack of cigarettes," the father says. "That's my flesh and blood. That's my son."

5 comments:

  1. This story, tragic as it is, is far more representative of American Justice system than we think.

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  2. Amazing; I too never heard of this travesty of justice. There must be others languishing in prison. Its good that we have Mary as a model and prime example of patient waiting.

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  3. I'm sure there is much to discuss regarding this interesting case, and I don't want to detract from its facts or from the injustice ... but what strikes me yet again is how wonderfully you see what is Godly in ordinary things and people.

    These women are Mary at the foot of the cross. Most people would not have thought that. "They're so ordinary," I thought, "Is it realistic to say they're Mary? Do they have any inkling that someone sees them this way? Could they ever see themselves that way?" and I realised, Well, what if they COULD see themselves that way?
    If they/we could see that we are but a hair's breadth away from Jesus - if we could see ourselves as God sees us, always on the brink of entering in - wouldn't it make all the difference?

    I appreciate the way you change my perspective on the ordinary things of life. You see God everywhere. If every alcoholic, despairing parent, adoring lover, joyful dancer ... and the deeply depressed ... could see himself as God sees him (her, etc)- we might realise that we were just at the foot of God's throne - we were close - but we did not recognise it.

    I suppose this is evangelism, or part of it. To so see others as God does (or as much as our little minds can) that it radically changes people's perspectives about themselves. For me, the tricky part is to keep this more godly perspective - to keep seeing God in the ordinary - and not see as the world does. Bless you, Heather.

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  4. Thanks so much, Jane, and isn't that just the amazing point of Christianity--that in all our ordinariness, we are all in a sense Mary, and all in a sense Christ? I can hardly think of anything more Mary-like than watching your innocent son be shipped off to rot in prison, then be executed. And I'm pretty sure Mary herself had no real sense of being or doing anything extraordinary. She and Joseph were themselves "poor white trash" or its equivalent...I'm thinking, too, of Therese of Lisieux's concept of the "Divine Elevator." She understood completely that we are way too ordinary to "go up" to Him--he comes down to us...

    And yes, Stephen and Denis, you can bet this is hardly an isolated case. I watched this 2010 National Geographic special on solitary confinement awhile ago and was horrified to discover that we have 80 THOUSAND prisoners in 24-hour solitary confinement in the U.S. (and that was two years ago). The prison "industry" is or should be a hideous blot on our national conscience...http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/national-geographic-channel/full-episodes/explorer/ngc-solitary-confinement/.

    While I'm at it, I'm wondering if you all could keep Fr. Steve Kelly, S.J., in prayer. He is one of five defendants, called the Disarm Now Plowshares, who challenged the legality and morality of the US storage and use of thermonuclear missiles by Trident nuclear submarines at the Kitsap-Bangor Naval Base outside Bremerton, and is serving 15 months in solitary confinement in Seattle, Washington at the:

    Federal Detention Center
    Reg: 00816-111 Unit: SHU
    P.O. Box 13900
    Seattle, WA 98198-1090

    He welcomes mail, as you can imagine. He says every thing in his cell is a glaring day-glo orange: his clothes, the tray on which his food arrives...apparently he was able to glimpse a branch through a crack in some door a couple of weeks ago, and it was a major blessing/event. There are no windows in his cell and they never, ever get to go outside...

    My heart is filled with joy at hearing from you all this Monday morning of the Third Week of Lent...

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  5. I would think the worst part of being falsely accused of a crime is coming to believe it yourself by simple attrition -- especially if you don't have inner or outer resources to keep those thoughts at bay. And having former acquaintances and 'friends' come to doubt your innocence, since, after all, you were always a little off-kilter . . .

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